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article imageLife's too harsh in Presevo to worry about Serb-Kosovo border

By Jovan MATIC (AFP)     Sep 24, 2018 in World

In the border valley of Presevo, neither ethnic Albanians nor Serbs pay much attention to talk of changes to the frontier between Serbia and Kosovo -- they are too busy trying to eke out a living.

One of Serbia's poorest regions, Presevo in 2001 saw a brief conflict when ethnic Albanian guerrillas took up arms demanding to join neighbouring Kosovo.

Majority ethnic Albanian Kosovo proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008, a move Belgrade still rejects.

But this summer, Presidents Hashim Thaci of Kosovo and Aleksandar Vucic from Serbia, signalled an openness to "border adjustments" to resolve their longstanding feud.

Media have mooted an exchange of northern Kosovo, inhabited mostly by ethnic Serbs around the divided town of Mitrovica, and the Presevo valley, a majority ethnic Albanian area in southern Serbia.

Of the valley's 75,000 inhabitants, 60,000 are believed to be ethnic Albanians, although they boycott censuses organised by Belgrade.

The guns are now silent. But nestled between Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo, the valley remains on edge, stricken by high unemployment and closely monitored by Serbian security services.

Although there are no official figures, hundreds of soldiers and police operate in the valley.

The big companies of the Yugoslav era have disappeared, such as plastics plant "July 7", printing factory "Grafofleks", trading firm "Buducnost" and a tobacco sorting plant.

Unemployment is around 70 percent, official figures show.

- Exodus -

Serb and Albanian street vendors sell fruit and vegetables by the side of the road in the southern S...
Serb and Albanian street vendors sell fruit and vegetables by the side of the road in the southern Serbian town of Presevo

The dilapidated facades of Presevo testify to the misery. The average monthly salary reaches barely 100 euros ($117).

In the valley's other town, Bujanovac, where the Heba mineral water plant provides jobs, the average wage amounts to 200 euros -- still only half Serbia's national average.

"Without the prospect of work, we will all end up leaving," Jonuz Kamberi, a 24-year-old ethnic Albanian, told AFP.

The unemployed metal worker had little to say about a territory swap.

"Anyway, they will not ask me for my opinion," he said.

A territory swap would be "stupidity", said Bratislav Trajkovic, a 64-year-old Serb from the multi-ethnic village of Reljan.

"What we really need is work. And everyone (Serbs and Albanians) thinks the same," said Trajkovic, a civil servant.

Both sides are under pressure from Brussels to conclude a deal.

Serbia is negotiating to join the European Union. Kosovo would like to open membership talks with the bloc and also join the United Nations.

In another town, Slavujevac, all 500 inhabitants are Serbs.

Fifty-five-year-old Stojan Nedeljkovic said he believed a new border line would "not solve any problems, neither for the Serbs nor for the Albanians".

The main concern is that people do not have the means to make a living, added Nedeljkovic, an unemployed father of five daughters.

- Factory would change everything -

"A factory would change everything," said his friend, Nenad Djordjevic, a 55-year-old metal worker.

But if nothing changes "all the children will leave", added Djordjevic, who works at a factory operated by an ethnic Albanian.

Out of 130 houses in Slavujevac, some 40 lie empty while others are mainly occupied by the elderly, he said.

Armend Aliu, the 40-year-old ethnic Albanian deputy mayor of Presevo, said the Serbian state "ignored simple demands" such as an industrial zone to attract investors, a new border crossing with Macedonia and school books in Albanian.

Belgrade's inaction could boost nationalist aspirations, he said.

But, national feeling hardly moves Fadil, an ethnic Albanian in his 60s, who came to Bujanovac for shopping.

"My pension in Serbia is 300 euros and I was told that in Kosovo it would be around 50 euros," said Fadil, who refused to give his family name.

Some hundred kilometres to the northwest, in Kosovo, Nazmi Aliu, a retired 71-year-old firefighter, also feared moving the border would put him under Belgrade's rule.

Aliu lives in Suhodoll, an Albanian village in the north Mitrovica region.

The predominantly Serbian enclave has one thing in common with Presevo: grinding poverty.

"Large private sector investment is missing in the region," according to a rare 2015 economic report by the Pristina-based institute RIINVEST.

"Noteworthy assistance comes mainly from international donors and governmental agencies."

Adnan Jusufi, an unemployed 42-year-old, said a territorial exchange would make the situation worse.

He doubts Serbia would show much concern for ethnic Albanians in northern Mitrovica.

Albanians from northern Mitrovica "have no work, no schools" and depend on the "government's care", he said.

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